Ah Leviticus. Here we go again. As a teacher of B’nei Mitzvah students, Leviticus is the bane of my existence. Although it may have interesting lessons to teach, it is very difficult for 12 year olds to relate to and understand. They may be able to grasp the concept of “sacrifice,” but not in the Biblical sense of the word. We don’t worship that way anymore and it reads like terrible cruelty to animals. Not only do we get blood and guts, but we get an encyclopedia of sexual don’ts – hardly comfortable reading to those for whom the mention of a menstrual cycle brings on an uncomfortable blush.
Every year, I invite my students to select which part of their week’s Torah portion they are most interested in chanting for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah and those students with Leviticus come to me begging for help. They want to find meaning in this book where they only see blood and guts, animal cruelty, sexual impropriety, and punishments that seem way too harsh for the crime. I have even had students beg to change their Bar/Bat Mitzvah date to avoid the dreaded book.
In order to understand the book of Leviticus, we need to see it in its historical context. The great scholar, Maimonides wrote in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve G-d without feeling different from all the other people surrounding them. Gradually, the people learned that “prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to G-d” because “it can be offered everywhere and by every person.”
In a D’var Torah I wrote a number of years ago, I argued that the story of the golden calf is the reason that the people needed the book of Leviticus. The people, having JUST witnessed G-d’s miracles, find that after Moses is away for only forty days, they need a concrete, visual way of worshiping G-d. They build a golden calf so that they can have something to see. The people, at this early stage in their spiritual development were like small children. They couldn’t understand something that they couldn’t experience with their senses. Through the sacrificial system, people could experience worship through sight, sound, smell, hearing, and touch. They were bombarded with sensory reminders of the ritual that they were enacting, and thus it was powerful and truly real.
After the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people were, in a sense, compelled to move out of their parents’ house and grow up. They were forced to learn to experience life through metaphor, through the indefinable. They would need to find spirituality in their actions and through their prayers. Even before the Temple was destroyed, this spiritual evolution was in process. The earliest synagogues were already in existence when the Temple fell and the original forms of some of today’s prayers were by now in use. After the destruction, the rabbis declared prayer to be a substitute for sacrifice.
Yet, prayer, done right, is still a form of sacrifice – the sacrifice of self. I teach my B’nei Mitzvah students that prayer is a focused wish. It forces us to stop and think about the things that really matter, and putting those things in the forefront of our mind, helps us work in partnership with G-d to make those things happen. If you pray for peace every single day, are you not more likely to work to make peace a reality in the world? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that through prayer, “we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy.” Through prayer, we sacrifice our selfishness and greed and reach inward to that spark of the Divine within that makes us want to work for truth, mercy, and love.
There is another important piece to be taken from Leviticus and that is the power of ritual. Modern scientific studies have shown us that ritual has tremendous psychological power. Take the going to bed ritual for example. For those who have trouble sleeping, sleep doctors recommend establishing a set bed-time routine, the repetition of which trains the mind to feel tired at the appropriate time and thus to sleep more soundly. Now of course if you do the “bed-time routine” only once, you may find that it did nothing for you and assume therefore that the idea is rubbish. You will have missed an opportunity. It is in the repetition of the action where the power lies.
The same is true of most of our Jewish rituals. You may not find much meaning in lighting Shabbat candles and coming to services one night. Do it for a few years, however, and you may find that your week is left hanging without the chatimah (that which ties it together in the end) of a Shabbat ritual.
I can say all of these things to B’nei Mitzvah students as they prepare to read their portion, though, and for many it doesn’t matter because the literal text in front of them still describes taking a bird by the wings and ripping it in half before burning it to a crisp. I can’t take away the fact that these are the words they are chanting so beautifully in the Hebrew text. The lesson is that when looking at our history, we are going to see some things that talk about the way things used to be. We should be glad that we don’t worship that way anymore, and look instead at what the text is really talking about. They sacrificed a tiny bird because they couldn’t afford a big, strong animal. They brought to the Temple the offerings of their hearts, all that they could afford they brought. What will you bring?
Cantor Sally Neff